When he shuttered his Michelin-starred restaurant Betony in 2018, Eamon Rockey found himself with some time on his hands. (Some. After all, he is also Director of Beverage Studies at Manhattan’s Institute of Culinary Education and an active consultant in the food and beverage industry.) When he wasn’t working, however, he got to mixing things up in his apartment and Rockey’s Liqueur was born.
Find Your Niche
Anyone who frequented his esteemed restaurant was familiar with Betony’s ambitious bar program and its ubiquitous milk punches. “At the time of our closing, we probably had about thirty milk punches on the menu,” says Rockey, “but the main milk punch was basically a liqueur that was seasonal and generally made without alcohol or just a little just to stabilize it. And then people could pair it with tequila or Champagne or Pisco or even enjoy it as a ‘virgin’ cocktail. And it occurred to me that we were creating our own housemade modifier — and one that was extraordinarily versatile.” Noting there wasn’t something this broad in the marketplace, he set about to create, over nine months, a botanical liqueur made from green apple, pineapple, green and black tea, and citrus. It has 12% alcohol, similar to wine, and can be paired with anything from seltzer to a stronger liquor, depending on whatever you’re in the mood for. “I chose a neutral American grain spirit that allows it to be used with anything else,” he notes.
Pick Your Price
When you’re developing any product, particularly one that is being sold to restaurants, cost is king. According to Rockey, you can start from a place of “How much do I need to charge people to sustainably produce this product and grow the business?” However, he started from a different place. “I said, ‘How much does this product need to cost so that it lands on retail shelves for between twenty and twenty-six bucks?’ At that level of price, a bartender or bar manager will be able to use it as a one- or two-ounce pour in a cocktail,” he says. “If it’s more expensive than that then the product won’t work and it will be an expensive ask for people to use that in their drinks.” By establishing that price point, he was able to zero in on the natural ingredients that were within his budget.
Before you set about launching a product for restaurants, make your connections. Rockey has spent years in the restaurant industry, cultivating a network of chefs and bar managers as well as professionals on the distribution and supplier side of the beverage industry. “It would have been a very different experience had I not already established those connections and relationships,” he says. “I was able to call up the people I already knew and trusted that I’d worked with and that was absolutely crucial.” If you’re a neophyte, however, hope remains. “You can print this: I’m happy to be a resource to anybody who’s trying to launch a spirit, a brand launch, a restaurant launch. I’ve probably already made the mistakes might,” says Rockey. “Ask me, ask other people! I owe an immense debt of gratitude to people like Simon Ford and Joe Santos, both of whom are phenomenal gin producers. Ask people who have done it before.”
Keep It Local
Brooklyn might not be the place you think of when you think of spirits production. But Rockey was determined to keep his liqueurs as local as possible — for very practical reasons. “I talked to people on Long Island, I talked to folks in upstate New York and even Kentucky. But the farther out I got, the more I felt there was a risk that I wouldn’t be able to monitor the quality,” Rockey says. He decided to go with a co-packer in Brooklyn and he says it’s been great.
Sell the Utility of It
According to Brizo data, there are nearly 300,000 restaurants that could be potential buyers of a liquor brand. To pitch to restaurants, Rockey advises focusing on the practicality of one’s product. When he was on the buyer’s side of the equation, Rockey says, “I would always ask myself, ‘If I bring this product on, what am I going to do with it? What’s it going to bring to my bar program?’” Being able to show a product’s utility in different ways will help you make inroads. Rockey’s Liqueur is, at its heart, a low-alcohol modifier that can be used in countless ways. It can be enjoyed simply over ice and in countless cocktails, from Tiki drinks to the Modern Martini served at The Modern in New York City and created by Patrick Smith. Of the latter, Rockey says, “It drinks like the most wonderful Vesper!”
Image: The number of restaurants in North America that identify as serving alcohol, cocktails, liquor, or spirits.
Partner Up with Other Brands
“Rockey’s would not have survived the last two years, certainly not the last year with the pandemic, without partnerships, without collaborations with other brands,” Rockey states. “It is absolutely true that we came together to create a force that is greater than the sum of its parts.” Rockey’s Liqueur was recently part of a collaborative release with Tiki cocktail expert and educator Shannon Mustipher and Aaron Polsky of Livewire called The Holy Tyger that has been bottled and released in Los Angeles and New York. Rockey has also done collaborations and tastings with brands including El Silencio Mezcal, Sagamore Spirit Rye Whiskey, and Barking Irons Applejack Brandy, among others. “To link up with these folks and get out in the marketplace and work together to accomplish great things that alone we probably wouldn’t have been able to do has been key to not just the survival of my brand, but I’m sure others as well.”
Go and Grow Slow
Building a liqueur brand takes time and effort and some capital. But don’t spend it all at once or in one place. “Don’t rush things,” says Rockey. “Don’t spend money where you don’t need to and take your time; be very intentional.” Due to his budget constraints, he had to forgo hiring a PR firm which was disappointing. However, “The brand was too young to necessitate it anyway and I think the brand benefitted from not having a firm initially,” he says. Now that he is in restaurants and markets all across the nation as well as having an international presence, he says, “I think the likelihood is that I’ll have to retain a PR firm.”
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